Painting along the empire line

Impressionism in Britain - Prospects, Thresholds, Interiors
April 21, 1995

Lawrence Binyon's classic 1933 study of English watercolours begins by evoking the "little fleet of seven ships" that sailed out of Plymouth on "the April 9, 1585" carrying with them a painter whose task was to picture the new colonies. Binyon's reference to the mythic shared origins of British art and empire underwrote the assumption that as the British empire grew and triumphed, so too did British art. Yet the relationship between the politics of empire and the practice of painting went far deeper than the mere depiction of imperial themes or the representation of colonial territories and populations. Victorian artists not only produced their work within the institutions of an imperial state, but also responded to, and helped shape, a developing and pervasive imperial culture. Lewis Johnson's study of British watercolours and Kenneth McConkey's survey of British "impressionist" painting offer timely reminders, in their very different ways, of the many subtle and intricate ties that bound together painting and empire in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Both these beautifully produced books were conceived as catalogues to accompany exhibitions (at the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Barbican Art Gallery). They contain an interpretative introduction, followed by a catalogue containing reproductions, commentary and details of the dimensions and materials of the painting, its location, scholarly pedigree and, in the case of McConkey, its provenance. While both authors are sensitive to the systems of classification that surround every work of art - economic, political, critical, technical, stylistic - their critical strategies could not be more opposed, and yet paradoxically they achieve similar results.

Johnson's introduction and commentaries expose the points of strain and potential collapse in the systems of classification. A typical analysis of an image begins by deciphering its pictorial logic, revealing its incongruities and impossibilities. These aspects of the work are then situated with respect to the institutional affiliations of the artist, the generic rules of the representation and the ways in which it stages the negotiation of inside and outside, identity and difference, view and viewer. McConkey, instead of exposing the limitations of the nascent combination of national and aesthetic categories as applied to 19th-century painting, attempts to extend them to cover a wide variety of different practices and genres.

The contrast between the two catalogues is nicely captured in their opening statements of intent. Johnson's book begins by openly questioning the exhibition catalogue's claims to identify, order and present a body of work to a defined public. He hopes instead that both catalogue and exhibition will enable "recognition of something of the complexity which emerges once the cover of a common past disappears". McConkey's book is prefaced by statements from the exhibition's corporate sponsor (who is also a collector of some of the artists exhibited), from the curator of the Barbican Art Gallery and finally from the author. The exhibition/catalogue is here introduced as an act of restitution, as the rescue of a lost and forgotten moment of British art and the attempt to restore it to its proper place as a national "revolution in painting".

To some extent the difference in curatorial strategy adopted by Johnson and McConkey reflects the method of categorisation of the works of art that they chose to exhibit. The watercolours in Johnson's exhibition are already classified as belonging to a "national school" of watercolours, and Johnson analyses the relationship between the formulation of this category and the process of redefining national identity during the 19th century. Ranging chronologically from Richard Wilson through Cotman and Turner to Nash and Burra, Johnson develops a way of understanding these images that releases them from conventional categories. By regrouping them he provokes the discovery of many surprising and unexpected relationships. The point of this exercise is not, he insists, to replace one way of categorising watercolours with another, better set of categories, but rather to propose a method of looking at the watercolours that remains open to the ways in which they resist such categorisation.

The paintings that make up McConkey's exhibition do not possess a pre-established and institutionally accredited identity. Indeed, one of the explicit aims of the exhibition is to establish a category under which to gather several diverse artists and paintings. However, as Johnson would perhaps have predicted, this work of categorisation is intrinsically unstable, and provokes the question: what exactly is meant by Impressionism in Britain? The exhibition title allows it to refer equivocally to British artists painting in an "impressionist" style, to the purchase of French impressionist art by British collectors, to the painting of British motifs by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley, and even to a national "impressionist" tradition stemming from Constable and Turner that had come home after a short period of exile in France. And, of course, there are more sites of potential instability arising from how in general to define an "impressionist" style or how to identify an impressionist painting.

McConkey tackles these problems by employing a very broad definition of impressionism, but even so the main result of his scholarship is the opposite of what he intended. Instead of putting a seal of scholarly and institutional approval upon the category British Impressionism, the exhibition and catalogue effectively consigns it to oblivion. The paintings McConkey collects under this title, from British artists as diverse as George Clausen, Wynford Dewhurst, William Stott, Henry Scott Tuke and Philip Wilson Steer, seem to belong to a entirely different family from the works of Monet, Pissarro and Sisley hung beside them. They seem to owe more to the traditions of French salon naturalism and Victorian genre painting than to the French avant-garde. This is underlined by McConkey's repeated claim for the importance of the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage as an influence on many of the more innovative late 19th-century British painters. Most of the paintings discussed contain some narrative reference, and an astonishingly large proportion contain children, whether at play, with their mothers, or in various stages of undress. These could cohere as examples of "impressionism" only if this were defined in extremely broad and unhelpful terms.

The paintings discussed by McConkey present a spectacle of diversity that calls for a number of more specific categories of interpretation than that of a national style of painting. Even when certain characteristics of these paintings overlap with accepted (but not indisputable) definitions of impressionist practice such as painting en plein air, the use of modern industrial pigments and prepared materials, and the choice of particular urban and rural motifs, they seem to point to developments in modern painting in which impressionism shared and participated but which it did not necessarily define. In his discussions of individual paintings McConkey effectively abandons the pursuit of a British impressionism in favour of more specific categories of analysis. One of the more suggestive is the category of the imperial idyll, of representations of an "England" somehow untouched by the violence of the imperial wars waged in its name. Such implied categories point to further interpretative connections, such as that between the "Edwardian Arcadia" portrayed in many of these paintings and the obsessive representation of childhood innocence.

Johnson and McConkey's books together make a convincing case for the complexity of 19th- and early 20th-century British art with respect both to individual paintings and to more general stylistic and thematic trends. Both show the various interests at stake in the classification of painting, and the ways in which individual works nevertheless outgrow such categories. Such interests are shown to work at the levels of criticism, law, the art market, as well as in the careers of individual artists, and may also be traced to the basic problem of reconciling the claims of national identity with those of an imperial state. At the heart of both books is a questioning of the teleologies and exclusions that are implicitly accepted in many historical discussions of the art of this period. McConkey achieves this obliquely, demonstrating the evident lack of fit between the category of "British impressionism" and the individual works that are supposed to comprise it. Johnson's work helps us to understand why such attempts at categorisation will inevitably be unsuccessful. His book proposes a way of looking critically at works of art that is vigilant not only to the existence of, but also to the viewer's desire for, stable interpretative categories. His commentaries on the individual watercolours reveal a core that cannot be categorised, but that continue to reward the effort of looking at them.

Howard Caygill teaches at the University of East Anglia.

Impressionism in Britain

Author - Kenneth McConkey
ISBN - 0 300 06334 2 and 06335 0
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £35.00 and £19.95
Pages - 224

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